I told my mother this morning that George Steinbrenner had died. “He was the Yankees’ owner, right?”
Even she knew.
It’s been a tough week for the Yankee greats. Two days after stadium announcer Bob Sheppard died at 99, George Steinbrenner, the Yanks’ flamboyant overseer since 1973, passed in his home in Tampa, FL, of a massive heart attack.
The Boss was 80.
If Sheppard was to baseball “The Voice of God,” Steinbrenner was God’s Deep Pockets. He was, if not the richest, certainly the most influential owner of his time, paving the way for a generation of Mark Cubans and Jerry Joneses.
He was the first Super Owner of the modern era. He made money talk. He made it not only acceptable for the owner to manage from the luxury box, but a tactic that didn’t go far enough.
The men who really cared were right there with their teams – in the clubhouse, on the sidelines, down the third base line.
Like most Yankees legends, Steinbrenner was larger than life. He had the physique of Ruth, the ego of Jackson, the will of Jeter. He was a celebrity in his own right and, 38 seasons after he purchased the most storied franchise in sports, nothing short of a fixture in American culture.
George Steinbrenner has a band hall named after him at the University of Florida. He is so big that even the band geeks look up at the silver lettering and say, “He’s the Yankees guy.”
New Yorkers aside, there will not be an outpouring of love, as there was for Gehrig or Mantle or even Phil Rizzuto. It’s not typical to write “dictator” or “loudmouth” or “madman” in a piece that reads like an obituary, but George Steinbrenner was all of these things – only he was so good at his job and commanded such respect in his later years that these words can only now be taken as terms of endearment.
There would be no New Yankee Stadium without Steinbrenner – it is the House That George Built. There would be no Alex Rodriguez, Champion. There would be no $200 million payrolls. Aviator glasses wouldn’t be quite as intimidating.
And there would be no Dan Gilbert without first a George Steinbrenner, though the two were opposites of sorts. The latter’s impulsive tirades and maniacal vindictiveness produced results. He spared no expenses, pulled no punches, never tread lightly in pursuit of the almighty W.
George Steinbrenner, above all, was a winner.
He purchased a depressed franchise from CBS on Jan. 3, 1973 for $8.7 million. By 1974, the Yankees were in a renovated stadium; by 1976, in the World Series; by 1977, world champions. Steinbrenner ushered in the era of free agency with the signing of Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson, and all told, spent over $1.8 billion to bring in new talent.
He was the longest-tenured owner in sports at the time of his death. The Yankees won 16 division titles during this stretch, 11 American League pennants and 7 World Series. They endured 22 managerial changes (five including Billy Martin), a couple devastating post-season failures, the ouster of the beloved Joe Torre, and Hideki Irabu.
Through it all, Steinbrenner – with a little help from Jeffrey Maier and Mark Wohlers – erected a modern-day dynasty, complete with a multi-million dollar media platform, the most accomplished players in the sport, and an equal legion of diehard fans and flaky bandwagon jumpers.
He made a name for himself by cracking skulls, busting balls and picking fights. He was not liked by those who did not know him, but those who did insisted that his iron fist gave way to a soft heart. He handed Bible verses to Andy Petite before big starts, put poor families through college, facilitated the legend of Derek Jeter.
It’s perhaps fitting for a man of extremes that the depths of his lows matched the peaks of his highs. Steinbrenner was banned twice from Major League Baseball – the first time for illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon, the second for his association with a small-time gambler. He became a running joke on the most popular sitcom in television when his team continued to struggle in the early-to-mid ’90s.
He is the face of what became known as The Evil Empire and alienated the occasional employee to the point that Ken Griffey swore he’d never don pinstripes.
Still, to era after era of sports fan, his flaws were duly glossed over by the fact that he excelled at seemingly everything.
He made his first millions as a visionary shipping tycoon. He won a national title as a graduate assistant to Woody Hayes. He hired the first African American head coach in professional sports as owner of the ABL’s Cleveland Pipers. He was with the same wife for 56 years. He even produced a Tony-nominated Broadway play.
He turned an $8.7 million investment into a staggering $1.5 billion national institution.
A myriad of talking heads and famous athletes have taken to the mike today to recount beloved memories and express the extent of Mr. Steinbrenner’s generosity. I can’t speak to these things. But I do know this: George Steinbrenner forever changed a sport I love. Baseball in America will never be the same again.